Quick Links: Festivals in Review

We consider ourselves lucky if there’s one accordion festival going on during a given weekend; two festivals is practically an embarrassment of riches. And yet, that was the case last weekend. While the International Accordion Festival took over rainy San Antonio, some trailblazers in Southern California hosted the first-ever Orange County Accordion Festival.

MP3 Monday: Chango Spasiuk

Chango SpasiukYesterday’s New York Times had a rave review for a recent performance by Chango Spasiuk, one of our favorite Argentine accordionists. Spasiuk is best known as an innovator of chamamé, a folk music from northeast Argentina which blends native Guarani, Creole and European traditions. But Spasiuk’s music goes beyond the traditional, incorporating rock, jazz and even avant-garde references. He’s drawn comparisons to his fellow countryman, the legendary Astor Piazzolla, and indeed, Spasiuk may well be doing for chamamé what Piazzolla did for tango.

Look Ma, No Hands!

Sex With No Hands: Squeeze ItFrom Sly and the Family Stone to Tower of Power, the San Francisco Bay Area has a rich history of funk music. I’m willing to bet, however, that Sex With No Hands is the first Bay Area funk band to feature dueling accordions. Nevertheless, this six-piece party band is making a name for itself from China Basin to the Marina with sweaty, high-energy shows and accordion-driven homages to the late 1970s.

Their recent EP, Squeeze This, showcases the band’s eclecticism, echoing the sounds of Parliament, Billy Idol, and a cheesy conjunto in the span of just four tracks. In between the accordions, you’ll hear plenty of keytar, synthesizer, cowbell, and Frampton-inspired talkbox. You can download the full EP for free from their site.

Like any good party band, however, Sex With No Hands is best experienced live. (It’s tough to convey the power of a truly awesome laser light show through an mp3.) Fortunately, you can catch their Halloween bash next Friday night at Ireland’s 32 in San Francisco. Tickets are limited, but you can buy them online.

Polka Haunt Us Makes Every Day Halloween

Polka Haunt UsLet’s face it: there’s a frightful shortage of good Halloween music. (I swear, if I hear “Monster Mash” one more time…) Veronique Chevalier agrees, which is why she’s put together Polka Haunt Us, a “spook-tacular” compilation of 13 songs based on famous ghostly legends from around the world. The album combines various polka styles with world music genres and then layers spooky/goofy lyrics on top to create what Veronique dubs “World Gothic Polka.”

The album’s opener, “The Beer Hall in Hell,” parodies the classic beer-glorification polkas, but “there’s no last call in Hell and this polka never stops.” “After Wife Polka Tango” recalls the ghost of Eva Peron, while “White Witch of Jamaica” is based on the tale of 18th century serial killer Annie Palmer. Accordionists Alex Meixner (a Grammy nominee last year), Mike Surratt, and Gee Rabe all contribute to the bubbling musical brew.

If you’re in Southern California, there’s a Polka Haunt Us release party tonight at Club Good Hurt in Santa Monica. In addition to performances by Veronique, Count Smokula, The Rhythm Coffin, and others, the first 100 paid guests will receive a free copy of the CD. Trick or treat!

Quick Links: El Parche, Amoriental, and Revolution

  • Live Review: Steve Jordan Tribute
    Austin360 reviews Sunday’s Steve Jordan tribute concert in Austin. Despite recently undergoing treatment for liver cancer, Jordan played a rockin’ 45-minute set; check out a clip of him performing with Little Joe.
  • Amoriental Accordion
    My French is rusty — Sylvie, can you help? — but the Amoriental appears to be a brand new accordion created by Thierry Bénétoux, who’s trying to bring the best of Eastern and Western music together in one instrument (note the unique button alignment). The site is short on details, but promises an unveiling next month at the Festival Des Nuits De Nacre.
  • Accordion Revolution
    This fun video slideshow, put together by Abbie Stillie and Katey Gries, includes interviews with members of Accordions Anonymous and the Bad Mitten Orchestre about the accordion’s resurgent popularity.

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Quick Links: Jazz, Idi Amin, and… Insurance?

A Mad and Faithful DeVotchKa

Devotchka, A Mad and Faithful TellingOf all the bands I’ve discovered while writing for Let’s Polka, DeVotchKa is quite possibly my favorite. We saw them at a club in San Francisco a couple years ago and were blown away — their unique brand of gypsy-mariachi rock was infectious and it’s hard to dislike any band that sports an accordionist/violinist, a drummer/trumpet player, a tuba player, and a wine-swigging lead singer. Two years later, after making a splash with their soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine, DeVotchKa does not disappoint with their new album, A Mad and Faithful Telling.

It’s easy to get caught up in the novelty of DeVotchKa’s sound — the cinematic swells, the mariachi horns, the tinkling glockenspiels — but don’t overlook the rich songs bubbling under that melting pot’s surface. “Transliterator” balances frenzy and restraint beautifully, the shuffling “Head Honcho” carries you away, and “Undone” is just achingly stunning.

We loved accordionist Tom Hagerman’s recent solo album, The Breakfast Playground, and — from his fierce violin on “Comrade Z” to his playful accordion on “Strizzalo” — he plays a huge role on this record. Other bands have helped put the accordion on the indie rock map in recent years, but few carry it as naturally or as well as DeVotchKa.

The Brooklyn Rebirth of Chicha

Chicha Libre: Sonido AmazonicoOlivier Conan didn’t go to Peru to find chicha; it found him. Conan was introduced to chicha — a style of Peruvian pop music derived from Colombian cumbias — by street vendors in Lima and was immediately hooked. Ignored by critics, art students, and the middle class, chicha was music for the poor and, as such, was largely ignored outside of Peru.

That is, until Conan returned to Brooklyn and formed Chicha Libre, whose debut album ¡Sonido Amazonico! was released today. The group plays a mixture of latin rhythms, surf music and psychedelic pop inspired by the chicha bands of the 1960s that borrowed sounds from rock and roll (electric guitars, organs) and combined them both with cumbia and traditional Amazonian music. In an interview, Conan describes how Chicha Libre pays homage to those progenitors:

“We imitated the sounds but took liberties. It has since evolved into a band with its own identity and borrowings from everywhere — in a way, it is faithful to the spirit of Chicha, which itself borrowed from all corners of the world. We’re just as syncretic and trying to be just as much fun.”

The band mixes covers of forgotten Chicha classics with French-tinged originals, re-interpretations of 70s pop classics as well as cumbia versions of pieces by Satie and Ravel. You can catch the six-piece group — which includes Joshua Camp (of One Ring Zero) on the Hohner Electravox — every Monday night in April at Olivier’s Brooklyn club, Barbès.

2008 Polka Grammy Preview

With Super Tuesday behind us, it’s time to focus on a contest that really matters: the Grammy award for Best Polka Album, to be handed out this Sunday in Los Angeles. This year’s nominees include some polka freaks from Texas, a pair of Canadian polka greats, and a 16-time winner who shows no signs of slowing down. Let’s take a closer look at the nominees:

Brave Combo, Polka’s Revenge

Eclectic polka-rockers Brave Combo are no strangers to the Grammy scene, having won in 1999 for their album Polkasonic and in 2005 for their album Let’s Kiss. For more than twenty five years, they’ve relentlessly busted genres and boldly taken polkas where they’ve never gone before. On Polka’s Revenge, the band fuses rock and Tex-Mex-inspired polkas with old-world waltzes, schottisches, and obereks. Originals like “The Denton Polka” mingle freely with updated renditions of classics by the Connecticut Twins and Ampol Aires.

John Gora & Gorale, Bulletproof Polkas

Born in Poland, now living in Ontario, Canada, saxophonist John Gora and his band earned their fourth Grammy nomination this year. The repertoire on Bulletproof Polkas runs the gamut from traditional polkas sung in Polish to polka-fied covers of rock songs. In the latter category, Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” survives the transition well, but the same cannot be said for John Lennon’s “Woman.”

Bubba Hernandez and Alex Meixner, Polka Freak Out

When Bubba Hernandez (former bassist for Brave Combo) first heard accordionist Alex Meixner, he asked himself, “What would this guy sound like on a Tex-Mex tuned accordion with some Tejano players?” The result is Polka Freak Out, an unlikely collaboration that places Alex’s technical mastery of the accordion over a Tex-Mex rhythm section, with dollops of Tejano, pop, and rock thrown in for good measure. Think Brave Combo, but with more accordion (and a heck of an accordion player at that).

Walter Ostanek and Brian Sklar, Dueling Polkas

“Canada’s Polka King” Walter Ostanek matches up with Saskatchewan fiddler Brian Sklar and his band, the Western Senators, for an old-fashioned double album. It’s an apt pairing: Sklar is a Canadian country music legend and Ostanek has been bringing country and western stylings to Cleveland-style polkas for years. The two styles merge effortlessly on Dueling Polkas and, fifty years after starting his first band, Ostanek is still one of polka’s greatest accordionists.

Jimmy Sturr and his Orchestra, Come Share the Wine

Having won 16 out of the 22 awards given for Best Polka Album, Jimmy Sturr has earned his share of both respect and enmity from his polka colleagues. But few can deny that he’s one of polka’s hardest-working promoters, cranking out an album a year and following a relentless tour schedule that ranges from the Bayway Polish Home to Farm-Aid. Come Share the Wine may lack the star power of his most recent releases (no Willie Nelson cameo this time), but that’s actually a good thing; this time, the focus rests squarely on his top-notch band.

It’s a diverse set of contenders for the polka field and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will bring home the Grammy. Will Jimmy Sturr add another trophy to his collection? Will the Texas polka mafia power either Brave Combo or Polka Freak Out to victory? Or will one of Canada’s polka heroes swoop in from the Great White North? We’ll find out on Sunday!

Book Review: Sights by Susanna Vance

There aren’t many young adult novels involving accordions, but Bruce Triggs found one. Bruce — co-host of the excellent Accordion Noir radio show in Vancouver — penned this book review for Let’s Polka:

Sights by Susanna VanceI picked up Susanna Vance’s book Sights, because the (hardback) cover is of a girl playing accordion. I was literally on my way to the Vancouver (BC) Accordion Circle, where I was quick to show it off.

Sights tells the story of a 13-year-old girl who’s had what’s euphemistically called a “tough” childhood, moving to a new school and making friends with some other outcasts and forming a band. She plays accordion… they rock… cool! I wanted her to be a big Johnny Grande fan (accordionist with Bill Haley and the Comets), but he isn’t mentioned.

I was really impressed with the “sound” of the narrator (whose name is Baby Girl). Without telling where she is from, she gives a really consistent rural USA sound to the book. I’ve lived a lot of places in America, and she sounded kind of Okie/Appalachian. I’m not sure where she’s from, but it’s really nice.

It has grimmer aspects than Victoria Miles’ Magnifico, the other teen book I know with accordion content. People should be aware that it deals matter-of-factly with subjects like child abuse and adolescent sexuality, but I do recommend it. (I similarly have to remember to tell people that Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes is kinda violent, which I overlook in the richness of it all.)

There are elements of fantasy in the story’s vision of 1950’s USA. I wouldn’t call it realistic; even the violence is rather odd. But if you’re prepared (by reading this), you should be in for a swell time.

You can listen to Accordion Noir, co-hosted by Bruce Triggs and Rowan Lipkovitz, every Friday night on CFRO CO-OP Radio, 102.7 FM in Vancouver, or download episodes online at accordionnoir.org.

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